THE DECISIVE VOTE
Moment Turned on a Memory
Saturday, February 14, 2009
It was a marathon day in Congress, marked by historic action and political theatrics.
The House Republican leader dropped a printout of the 1,100-page stimulus bill on the House floor, claiming it was overweight with spending. The Democratic House speaker likened the bill's passage to Abraham Lincoln's preservation of the union. By dusk, after the $787 billion economic recovery package had sailed through the House and 59 senators had voted in favor, the nearly empty Senate chamber fell silent. The proceedings remained open for five painstaking hours as Senate leaders awaited the climactic return of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who flew in from Ohio and cast the decisive 60th aye vote.
Brown strode into the chamber at 10:45 p.m., wearing a dark suit and no smile. He placed his arm around Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), shook the hand of Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and then gave the clerk a thumbs up, ending what had been one of the longest votes in Senate history. Brown's was the critical vote Senate Democrats needed to ensure that the signature legislation of President Obama's young administration passed without a GOP filibuster. Three Republicans broke ranks to support it.
Brown, whose 88-year-old mother died of leukemia last week, had dashed from her memorial viewing in Ohio last night and boarded a government aircraft provided by the White House that landed at Andrews Air Force Base. The journey illustrated the extraordinary steps Democrats took to guarantee a major victory.
For Brown, the moment turned on the memory of his mother, who was raised in a small Georgia town during the Great Depression. A champion of social and racial justice, Emily Campbell Brown read and reread Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and insisted that her boys address African American adults not by their first names but with "Mr." or "Mrs."
She cast her first vote in 1944 for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and even as she lay dying she wanted to live long enough to see Barack Obama in the White House. And so it was a poignant moment last night for the son who knew that his vote would make a difference.
"I know she would want him to be there for the vote," said Brown's wife, Connie Schultz. "There was just no question that Sherrod would have to cast his vote."
After Brown voted, an aide whisked him and Schultz through an empty marble hallway in the Capitol, into an elevator and toward a car that would carry them to Andrews for their flight back to rejoin family in Mansfield, Ohio. There his mother, who died Feb. 2, will be buried after a funeral this morning at a Lutheran church.
On Tuesday, the Senate passed its version of the stimulus bill with 61 votes, including that of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has a malignant brain tumor. But Kennedy did not return to Washington for last night's vote on the compromise bill worked out with the House, meaning every other Democrat needed to be present.
Reid, who spoke with Brown throughout the week while he tended to his family in Ohio, held the vote at 5:30 p.m. and kept it open until Brown could make it back. When the Ohio senator, who usually flies on commercial airlines to and from Washington, could not find a flight that would accommodate his schedule, the White House arranged government transportation.
As the wait for Brown grew, Reid and Durbin took turns presiding over a chamber so quiet that only Reid's sneezing was audible from the galleries. With nothing much to do, both men thumbed through the Congressional Record and stared out at 100 wooden desks without occupants. At one point, Durbin began reading "Traitor to His Class," a biography of Roosevelt by H.W. Brands.
Earlier in the day, touched by Brown's effort, colleagues lavished praise on him.